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My journey into the dark archive
24 August 2016

There are different names for it—restricted section, giftschrank (which translates to ‘poison cabinet’), and my personal favourite, dark archive. The official name for our restricted section is ‘Secure Room - Restricted’, or SRR. Somewhere within the vast maze of our stacks, there is a locked room which requires special clearance to enter. Within that room are several locked steel cabinets, which still fewer Library staff can access. Within these steel cabinets is a treasure trove of banned books, which are unavailable to Library readers.

Our restricted section is almost as hard to access as this bank vault would be—if the door were shut.

Fairfax Corporation, Entrance to the vault at the Commonwealth Government Savings Bank at Martin Place, Sydney, ca.1920, nla.obj-162987883

I have been delving into our SRR, trying to figure out exactly why each item was restricted, and whether or not that restriction should still be enforced.

As I’m a massive fan of Harry Potter, whenever someone says ‘restricted section’ this is what immediately springs to mind:

Shrieking book animation from Harry Potter

Shrieking book

I’m slightly disappointed to report that all the publications that I’ve investigated so far have been Muggle publications.

The 153 publications I found in the SRR were put there for a variety of reasons including:

  • secret and/or sacred Indigenous material
  • litigation—ongoing court cases or upheld claims
  • commercial in confidence—usually embargoed for 12 months or more to protect commercial interests.
  • pornography
  • refused Classification (RC) by the Australian Classification Board
  • publications that contain significant and/or potentially dangerous errors.

So what kind of publications do you think make up most of our SRR?

I bet you will be surprised to discover that, no, the SRR is not bursting with banned erotica. The correct answer is: it’s a tie between litigation and commercial in confidence!

Secret/sacred Indigenous publications

J. Redaway & Sons and William Blandowski, Aborigines of Australia, corrobori [i.e. corroborree] or native festival  1855, nla.obj-135909701

Out of respect for Indigenous protocols and sensitivities, we keep some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material in the SRR. Some of it can only be accessed with special permission from the publisher. Some of it is restricted as it is secret men’s business, or women’s business. 

I had to confirm the ISBN on one item in this category, which was tricky, as the catalogue record contained the following note:

Access conditions: Restricted access: Aboriginal ceremonial or gender specific material (men's business). 

To get around this restriction, I enlisted the help of one of our male Indigenous staff members, who inspected the material and passed the relevant information on to me.


A large number of the books in the SRR are there because they were recalled by the publisher due to ongoing court cases, or upheld claims for defamation.

"Know any good defamation lawyers?"

Geoff Pryor, "Know any good defamation lawyers?"--chameleon to flying fox  2001, nla.obj-158583826

Back in 1997, Goodbye Jerusalem by Bob Ellis made the rather sensational claim that two prominent politicians were lured to join a particular political party through the seductive wiles of a woman who is now the wife of one of those politicians. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages later, the book was reissued with the offending sentence omitted. We have the original edition in the SRR, and the updated edition in the general collection.

In 2014, He Who Must be Obeid by Kate McClymont and Linton Besser was recalled and pulped by the publisher, when it became apparent that the authors made the unfortunate mistake of accusing the wrong Chris Brown of being ‘in business’ with the Obeid family. Again, we have a copy of the original edition in the SRR, and the corrected version in the general collection. 

Commercial in confidence

Global Negotiator defines commercial in confidence as:

A classification that identifies information that, if disclosed, may result in damage to a party’s commercial interests, intellectual property or trade secrets. You must not disclose any information marked ‘Commercial in Confidence’ without permission from the party who supplied it.

-Global Negotiator

At the request of the publisher, we place commercial in confidence publications in the SRR for an agreed-upon period of time, after which it becomes available to the general public.

Publications like these are important for the Library to collect for future use, as they often provide detailed data about various aspects of Australian life, for example Residex predictions. Best rent report NSW/VIC/QLD/ACT/NT/WA.

Barnett, F. Oswald (Frederick Oswald), 1883-1972, (photographer.) & Victoria. Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board (1935). Carlton. Entrance to a slum pocket in Elgin Street. State Library of Victoria collection


The Bubble Boy trading cards were published by the Queensland AIDS Council back in the mid 1990s. The cards feature an image of safe sex advice on one side, and an image of men engaged in various sex acts on the other side. I found the cards in the SRR, sealed in a stapled envelope. There was no catalogue record. 

Stapled envelope containing Bubble Boy swap cards

With the exception of Queensland, pornographic publications are only banned in Australia if they are given an RC classification by the Australian Classification Board. In this case, as the Bubble Boy trading cards were not given an RC classification, I relocated them to another collection with a similar name called the Secure Room (SR) collection, which is where the rest of the pornographic material lives. The cards can now be requested and viewed under supervised secure conditions by the (18+) public in our Special Collections Reading Room.

Refused Classification (RC)

Refused Classification (RC) icon

Publications that are refused classification (RC) are completely banned because, according to the Guidelines for the Classification of Publications 2005, they:

  • Describe, depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent  phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults to the extent that they should not be classified; or
  • Describe or depict in a way that is likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult, a person who is or appears to be, a child under 18 (whether the person is engaged in sexual activity or not), or;
  • Promote, incite or instruct in matters of crime or violence.

These are the books that raise the problematic issue of censorship for libraries.

If librarianship is the connecting of people to ideas—and I believe that is the truest definition of what we do—it is crucial to remember that we must keep and make available, not just good ideas and noble ideas, but bad ideas, silly ideas, and yes, even dangerous and wicked ideas.

- GraceAnne A. Decandido (Librarian, Editor)

John Spooner, Euthanasia with death  1997, nla.obj-136414042

The Peaceful Pill handbook by Philip Nitschke sets out information on assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia. When it was first published in 2006, it received a Category 1 classification—restricted to adults. In 2007, the Category 1 rating was appealed by the Attorney-General, backed by the Right to Life Association (NSW). The appeal was upheld, and the book’s classification was changed to RC (refused classification). I discovered that in the ACT, Library staff who knowingly deliver RC books to members of the public face a hefty fine and up to one year in prison, and so The Peaceful Pill handbook sits in the SRR collection.

Embarrassing versus dangerous

Australian publishing history is full of controversy and embarrassment, and many of the resulting books still sit in our general collection, able to be accessed by anyone.

For example, we have a copy of The whole pantry, which was withdrawn from sale by the red-faced publisher after the author admitted that she’d never actually had cancer, let alone beat it through clean living. But whilst misleading, healthy living (probably) never actually hurt anyone.

There is a line that sits between what is an embarrassing publication, and what is a dangerous publication. That line can be somewhat subjective, and tends to shift over time. 

Sometimes the line is clear—in our restricted section there is a certain agricultural booklet published decades ago by a government body that recommends the use of a substance that has since been banned. The substance was at the heart of a class action which claimed compensation from the chemical’s manufacturer for damaged crops, fish abnormalities, as well as birth defects and cancer in humans.

Poison spraying apparatus. Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 4120

Why bother?

So why do we keep publications which cannot be accessed? As Alison Dellit, our Director of Australian Collections Management says in her interview with ABC program Story Hunters

part of the role of the Library is to keep the history of Australian publishing, and part of this history of publishing is that sometimes people publish things that shouldn't have been published.

We are not in the business of destroying books, so if a title is banned or recalled, we move it to our restricted section. Thereby we retain a piece of Australian publishing, whilst still respecting the law. These items may become a valuable resource for future researchers, so it is important that a copy is retained in a safe and secure environment.

Laws change, as do moral values, so a book that is restricted today may be unrestricted tomorrow. Many books that were prohibited 50 plus years ago are now considered to be classics—Brave New World, Lolita, and The Catcher in the Rye to name but a few.

A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone. 

- Jo Godwin (Librarian, Editor)

George Molnar,  "The bacterial test was O.K. Then some idiot dropped a copy of Lolita in it."  1964, nla.obj-147519001

Find out more—Dangerous books behind lock and key: Exploring Australia's hidden library collections by ABC Story Hunters

Thank you for this great article. It was fasinating to read.
What a truly remarkable article.
Fantastic! Thanks for this article!!
Wow how good is that?
A great article.I am so pleased that these books have not been destroyed. As commented above....morals and values change over the years.What is considered bad today, may be OK tomorrow.
What a ripping yarn! Thank-you.
I felt like physically going through the vault. Very interesting, thank you.
Terrific read!
The different criteria for banning was most interesting.
How important is it that we have a collection of everything the 'good, the bad and the ugly'. Thanks NLA for doing your part so well. Plenty of intrigue and mystery here. Love to visit and see some of these items for myself. Can that happen?
I can't arrange an actual visit, but you can have a sneak peek in this Story Hunters episode (available from ABC iview until 16 May 2017) http://iview.abc.net.au/programs/story-hunters/LE1551H004S00
A truly great and enlightening article.
Thanks for this very intetesting information. It is good that you keep all of the banned material,I personally would not like to view the contents,however thankfully you are keeping them safe for future generations, Some strange people out there with more than strange opinions. Thanks again
How interesting - today's porn is tomorrow's norm!
I suspected the existence of this 'room' as similar rooms exist in other national libraries. I discovered this information from library staff when doing research on WWII some years ago in Berlin and London. I believe it's obligatory for libraries to hold and provide all types of information, irrespective of social mores, for researchers.
I found this article very interesting, as I never knew what was restricted and the intricacies of why.
I'm highly familiar with the NLA and its collections, but had no idea about the SRR or what it held. Thanks for your enlightening article, Kristen.
As a volunteer in the Conservation Library of the Western Australian Herbarium, I appreciate your contribution to librarianship, and the whole corpus of human knowledge.
Have to agree with that, from Whitefish, MT The story would be very different here, I'd imagine, with Trump on the horizon...
Thanks for a fascinating article. What about an insider tour sometime :)
This is the best I can do for now :) http://iview.abc.net.au/programs/story-hunters/LE1551H004S00
I never dreamt that there was such a place fascinating information on waht we don't know about.
Very informative . Information perhaps the general public should be informed of !
Loved this story, well done!
A grea little read well done,can we have some more
Excellent article. Thankyou.
Excellent article. Thankyou.
An interesting article but very sad that organisations that seek to impose their biased views on all others in society, such as the Right to Life Association (NSW), are able to achieve the banishment of a publication. The reality is that there is no excuse or rational justification for censorship and no library or librarian should engage in it. Securing materials and restricting access or type of access for the purpose of preservation is perfectly reasonable but perhaps more the province of archivists than librarians. Materials that are of a critical nature to a specific situation, event or currency, can be embargoed or circulated under controlled conditions and this should be the responsibility of those originating them. Those articles shouldn't (and probably don't) reach the library until their "need" for a restriction is no longer at issue. An exception to this would be when those documents reveal some form of perfidy or misconduct that some wish not to be revealed, ever. However, if that is the case, I would consider it an argument for wide access rather than the opposite. The censoring of ideas, interpretations, thoughts, beliefs, perspectives, political attitudes, or publications that "offend" some particular group is inexcusable and does nothing to advance society or the human condition. Hitler burned the books, Fraser closed libraries, this sort of activity is characteristic of demagogues and dictators everywhere. Librarians should not be party to it. The very notion of a "Classification Board" is nonsensical. Why is it that the individuals on this board are somehow beyond any negative influence of the material they classify or are have such sound ethical and moral standards that they won't abuse their access to the materials, yet the rest of us mere mortals cannot be trusted to meet those standards? As for "commercial-in-confidence" material, securing it should be the responsibility of those who stand to profit from its content. Why should the public have to protect information that is designed to make profits or, probably in many cases, make profits unfairly or through exploitation? It is not an accident that in IT circles, increasingly, publication and access to code and other materials is open source, and published under the GNU & Creative Commons type of licence. I have no wish to demean or suggest any impropriety on the part of the librarians engaged in this work. I am sure that they are simply "doing their jobs". It behoves all librarians to oppose this sort of activity. Such collections should not exist as neither should any form of "Classification Board." Too many in our occupation, under the excuse of remaining disinterested, pretend to be apolitical and either don't even consider or choose to avoid any intellectual investment in considering the social, human and ethical responsibilities of their roles or the impact of their decisions on society as a whole.
Off limits, I'd still like a look in the vault.
Thank you. An informative and amusing article. And how I miss both the wit and brevity of line in the work of George Molnar! Keep up the good work in these straightened times.
Very interesting and informative well worth the read
Thanks for the article - this has expanded my understanding and the importance of the National Library.
Thank you for an enlightening article. I often start reading articles and then after a few paragraphs, I've got the gist and don't read on. In this case I enjoyed reading right to the end.
Wonderful information, thank you. I was not aware of a super-secret vault, only the closed reading room. As you say, values and laws change and the items hold history that may be acceptable, useful and interesting at a later time.
Thank you for a wonderful story. I wonder how many items you hold that would be dangerous in some way - not just offensive.
Thanks for the excellent article. We are always more curious for what we cannot have!
Question re Indigenous Australian secret material. Does the community concerned (if you know who they are) get consulted about access to the material? I'm guessing they may know more about the content than the publisher.
Hi Rita Sue, that’s a great question! The Library manages cultural rights in consultation with relevant family members and communities. The requests for restrictions of the published material in the SRR have come from Indigenous communities. In fact, in most cases the material was published by Indigenous community organisations, who then requested the restrictions.
A most intertesting read!
Great article. Thank you. An acquaintance wrote a Masters thesis in the 1970s which, according to him, was placed under restricted access at the National Library. Is there anyway of finding out if it is still there?
Hi Margaret, can you see it in our catalogue? http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/ If not, contact us with the relevant details, and we can look into it for you. https://www.nla.gov.au/legal-deposit/contact-us
Seeking book that australian government attempted to ban. did have but lost in transet. Book was written by foreign female author who was invited to visit an aboriginal tribe out west.she arrived and spent the day under their humpy' s .next day they asked her to join them on a 'walk' and she unwittingly traversed with them from east to west coast of australia,her tale telling of her physical ,emotional and spirtual journey.She explains the tribes medical knowleadge and useage throughout the journey,they explain the Dreamtime ,and the relationships with aboriginals and the great Mother Earth.They explain that they ask her to share the knowledge she now posses, with the world. hench the journey and the book. if you have knowleadge of the book I am discribing I would apreciate greatly.
Hi Danielle, are you referring to 'Mutant Message Down Under' by Marlo Morgan? If so, this book was originally self-published as a true story, but turned out to be completely fictional.

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